A story of story-telling, Miriam Meyerhoff

The Truth About Language: What it is and where it came from 
Michael C Corballis
Auckland University Press, $40.00,
ISBN 9781869408633

Many people have remarked that, more than language itself, how we use language is what sets humans apart from other animals. Whales, elephants, birds, other apes, seem to be able to communicate a few things to each other, and we’re starting to find out that some animals can even tailor their communication to specific addressees (“I want food/sex from you; not you”). But we still have no evidence that any other animals tell stories. 

Humans compulsively turn events into narratives and story-telling is so fundamental to how we use language that, in some languages, talking and narrating get subsumed under the same word. In Hawai‘i, when you shoot the breeze with someone, you “talk story”, and in Vanuatu “storian” (from English “storying”) means “to chat, while away the time through talk”, as well as “to tell a story”. Michael Corballis, in his latest book The Truth About Language, gradually builds to this conclusion as well. He argues that language emerged from gestures between early humans, and that these gestures morphed into vocal utterances, which find their utmost fulfilment in the telling of stories.

One of the big stories of our time is the origin of human language. As Corballis tells us, the fascination with where language comes from has punctuated our entire recorded history. The topic became so febrile following the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species that it was simply banned from linguistics conferences for some time. In recent years, any number of researchers have weighed in on the topic from linguistics, philosophy, primatology and psychology (Corballis’s home discipline). The title of his latest book makes his impatience with other researchers clear –  he wants to sweep away intra- and inter-disciplinary confusion. So, in order to sort the truth from the misinformation, we need to define first what language is. This will then help us derive an empirically based answer to the problem of how it arose (the “where it came from” of the title).

Defining “what language is” sets the bar quite high. Defining language, especially in the context of a book on language evolution, is less straightforward than you might think. If you understand “language” to mean any repertoire of actions and activities that can communicate any kind of information at all, then our story about the origins of language will engage with the capacity to point (and perhaps simultaneously vocalise) as a way of saying “look at Andrew”, or as a way of saying “put it over there”. In that case, we need to explain why all the costs associated with acquiring speech were worth it in order to focus our joint attention on someone or someplace else. (And there are indeed costs with oral communication systems; our lowered larynx means we have to carefully co-ordinate breathing and ingesting food and liquid so we don’t choke.) But, if what we mean by “language” is a complex system that is non-compositional and has figurative, expressive power, one that allows you to engage in the kind of mental wandering that is inherent to any utterance that expresses the past or future, then this is a very different exercise. And you can slice the space between pointing gestures and complex planning or poetry in many places. Part of the reason there are so many stories about the origin of language is because there is little consensus on what the object is that we are describing. Corballis’s book inadvertently illustrates this – although he has a coherent argument, I found different ways of describing language on pages 54, 62, 80, 84, 90, 120 and 189.

The jump from gesture to speech, Corballis argues, happened because speech has advantages over manual communication (you can talk even in bad light, talking frees your hands up for other stuff – and if you wonder how big a deal this last point is, try asking a deaf friend how they hold a conversation in New Zealand Sign Language while knitting a jersey or while washing the dishes). Various physiological changes also attended this period in our development, but whether changes like increased brain size and the lowering of the larynx caused speech to arise, or whether they were mutually reinforcing developments, is perhaps something we will never know. Corballis is (rightly) circumspect in not calling this one.

Readers of this book will find a great deal of interesting information about the evolution of our species, extracted from a variety of sources in biology, archaeology, primatology and brain science. There is considerable disagreement among linguists and evolutionary biologists over when language emerged in our branch of the ape family. Estimates range from several million years ago to 100,000 years ago. Which end of the scale you take changes considerably the nature of what you are trying to describe and what kinds of other developments in human cognition and physiology might be relevant. There’s a circumstantial (and hence, anecdotal – those stories again) quality to much of what can be said about language and other changes to human brains, bodies and societies at deep time. Corballis reviews a lot, and is careful to warn where connections are tenuous.

He makes his strongest case for the emergence of language as a social resource. Before moving to its story-telling capacity, Corballis observes how central other people are to our need for and use of language. Corballis argues that I talk to share my experiences and emotions with you, or I do so to test my ideas about what you are thinking, experiencing and feeling. Language depended on our developing a theory of mind (the idea that someone else has a mind like ours) and on some kind of social intelligence, built up within what were probably originally quite dense social networks. When I start telling you stories, I’m sharing my mental wanderings to achieve social ends: “language itself emerged to enable us to regale each other with the narratives that fill our lives, the flights into humor [sic] and murder and religion, and even the dull accounts of golf rounds and travels abroad”.

This gives you a sense of the ironic and conversational tone of The Truth About Language. Corballis has honed his skills as a witty and erudite interpreter of scientific data in his previous work, such as Pieces of Mind. The Truth About Language is peppered with quotations from poetry and the classics. By and large, it is a fair overview of the debates in the field, though linguists are by no means the monolithic and dopey bunch you might think we are based on Corballis’s characterisation of us. We are not all slavish Chomskians (though he is quite right, I think, to point out the dopeyness of linguistic theories that reduce language to retrieving examples from a storehouse of every word or utterance we have ever heard in our lives). Corballis, like a lot of non-linguists working on language evolution, sidesteps some of the more linguistically interesting aspects of language. For instance, he notes that if you start with the phrase “she has a chip on her shoulder” you can generate a whole bunch of others through simple substitution, such as “she had a chip on her shoulder”. But, to a linguist, this is much less interesting than the fact that all speakers of English agree that “she” and “her” must refer to the same person in those sentences (not another “her”, and you can’t ever say “she had a chip on my shoulder”). Or that everyone agrees that in “she is a pain in the neck” (structurally identical to the chip on the shoulder), “the neck” can never be hers. If these characteristics of language are what you think define it, Corballis stops short of your mark, and The Truth About Language can’t really help you understand where this kind of knowledge comes from.

The Truth About Language was first published by the University of Chicago Press and is distributed in New Zealand by Auckland University Press with the assistance of Creative New Zealand. It’s wonderful that Creative New Zealand are supporting local writers, but perhaps some of the funds might be used to edit the spelling to local norms or, at the very least, correct the typos that presumably came straight from the University of Chicago Press manuscript.

These gripes aside, Corballis is to be congratulated for another humane, challenging and entertaining contribution to our quest to understand the truth about ourselves, to think more about what we are and where we come from.

Miriam Meyerhoff teaches linguistics at Victoria University of Wellington.

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